Tom Richmond: All at sea...still no plain sailing for Failing Grayling as scandals mount over ferries, drones, Brexit (and trains)

LESS than two weeks into a new year and it is in the national interest to return to an all too familiar question '“ why is Chris Grayling still in his job?

Graeme Bandeira's depiction of Chris Grayling.

He spent longer at the Commons despatch box this week defending his myriad failings than Theresa May did over Brexit, and it wasn’t plain sailing.

And, given that the Transport Secretary was also accused by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn of having a “PhD in incompetence”, his latest inquisitions had, for once, nothing to do with his continuing mismanagement of the railways – or fallout from his former justice brief.

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Transport Secretary Chris Grayling is under fire again.

First up on Monday was Mr Grayling’s statement following the pre-Christmas drone debacle at Gatwick Airport which disrupted the travel plans of more than 100,000 people and delays to a Government consultation on the introduction of new restrictions on these devices.

It saw Andy McDonald – the Shadow Transport Secretary – observe how Mr Grayling was “stripped of his command by the security services due to his inaction” when cancellations escalated. I note the Minister, a master of buck-passing, did not respond to this familiar criticism about his lack of leadership.

And it got no better for Mr Grayling on Tuesday when he returned to the Commons to justify the controversial £13.8m contract awarded to Seaborne Freight to provide a freight service between the port of Ramsgate and Ostend in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

This, according to Mr McDonald, is an outfit with “no money, no ships, no track record, no employees, no ports, one telephone line, and no working website or sailing schedule”.

“Two of Seaborne Freight’s directors would not pass normal due diligence requirements,” added the Labour front-bencher.

When details of the contract were first disclosed, the all at sea Mr Grayling justified it on the grounds of “national security”. Now he says it is evidence of his support for start-up British businesses.

But he was even less convincing when Leeds Central MP Hilary Benn – chair of the Brexit Select Committee – asked: “Has Seaborne Freight told the Department which vessels it has acquired in order to provide the service, which could be needed in just over two months’ time?” The reply? “We are confident that the firm will deliver the service,” said the Minister.

And he was equally unforthcoming when Leeds West MP Alex Sobel asked these damning questions: “Is he aware that Seaborne Freight tried to get an option to purchase the following four ships: the Hartmut Puschmann, the Espresso Catania, the Espresso Ravenna and the Via Adriatico? They all operate in the southern Mediterranean and would need a complete refit to be able to operate in the Channel. In addition, two of the ships failed EU safety inspections.

“On top of that, Tirrenia, which owns the ships, said that it would not sell them because it did not believe that Seaborne Freight had the money. I visited Tirrenia’s website and found that I could go on a Mediterranean cruise on the four vessels in April. Was the Secretary of State aware of that?”

For the record, Mr Grayling said in response: “I am not going to comment on the commercial plans of Seaborne Freight. I am satisfied that it will have the ships necessary to operate the service, but if it is not able to deliver them, it will not be paid.” Yet this complacency misses the point. If there is a no-deal Brexit, and Seaborne Freight does not honour its undertakings, it leaves no plan B when gridlock at Dover, the country’s biggest port, compromises British trade policy and hits the wider economy and, by way of consequence, leaves the taxpayer worse off. It’s that serious.

And then, at transport questions on Thursday, Huddersfield MP Barry Sheerman was among those who accused Mr Grayling of not doing enough to make sure safety agreements are in place to allow airlines to keep operating if there is a no-deal Brexit.

Mr Grayling said he could provide just such a guarantee and that the Civil Aviation Authority was working on creating a “properly functional British alternative”.

Symptomatic of Mr Grayling’s decision-making of the railways which commuters here are all too familiar with, it then beggars belief that he was asked by the Prime Minister to attend one of her Downing Street ‘‘meet and greets’’ this week to try and persuade Brexit rebels to back Mrs May’s approach.

If she wants to appease her critics, she should be ensuring that the Transport Secretary’s career is sunk without trace before his cavalier contempt disrupts even more lives, businesses and travel plans.

And it brings me back to to the one question that no MP, Tory or Labour, dares to ask at Prime Minister’s Questions: what does it say about the integrity of politics when Chris Grayling appears unsackable?

I NOTE Business Secretary Greg Clark did answer departmental questions in the Commons this week, but where has he been? Given that his brief has never been more important, he should be front and centre of the national debate on Britain’s economic future.

The country deserves to know where he stands and what he is doing. As Nicky Morgan, a former Education Secretary, observed: “Britain is renowned for its confidence and competence. Currently, we are demonstrating neither.”

ALREADY the winner of two races this season, has there ever been a more aptly-named racehorse than Getaway Trump? Far from being a fake, the gelding is now favourite for next month’s valuable Betfair Hurdle – formerly the Schweppes – at Newbury.